Reclaiming History: The Assassination
of President John F. Kennedy
By Vincent Bugliosi
W.W. Norton. 1612 pp. $49.95
By Max Holland
You may have thought that the debate over the Kennedy assassination was settled long ago. Vincent Bugliosi would disagree, although he’d like to settle it now. Reclaiming History is less a work of historical reclamation than a very, very long — and passionate — argument about what historians and investigators have claimed and counterclaimed over the years.
The argumentative design should not be surprising because, as an attorney, Mr. Bugliosi comes to the subject steeped in the adversarial process as the finest way to arrive at the truth. His fascination with the Dallas murder, in fact, began in 1986, when a British TV company asked him to be the prosecutor in a mock trial of the presumed-guilty-but-never-tried assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Mr. Bugliosi, the Los Angeles district attorney who famously prosecuted Charles Manson and his cult, won a unanimous verdict in that case in 1971 and went on to write a book about it, the best-selling Helter Skelter. Now, after 20 years of intermittent effort investigating the JFK assassination, he is prosecuting this case in the court of public opinion.
It took that long partly because Reclaiming History is unlike any other book on the assassination ever produced by a single author. Rather than compare Mr. Bugliosi’s work with, say, Gerald Posner’s Case Closed (1993) — another effort by a lawyer to, well, close the case — it is probably much fairer to shelve Reclaiming History alongside the two massive federal investigations of the assassination.
The first, of course, was the Warren Commission’s final report and 26 supplementary volumes, published in 1964, and the second was the final report and 12 supplementary volumes issued by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979. Mr. Bugliosi is a much better and more curious writer than the legal teams that produced these federal texts, and while his output might first appear modest by their standards, for a lone author writing about a lone gunman the output is staggering. (I should note that Mr. Bugliosi mentions my work in his book, mostly favorably but not always so.)
The printed text of Reclaiming History alone runs 1,612 pages. The book includes a CD-ROM with an additional 958 pages of end-notes before the whole prolix enterprise comes to a merciful end with a mere 170 pages of source notes. If printed like a regular book, in a normal-size font and on regulation paper, Mr. Bugliosi’s work would take up 13 volumes. At $49.95, this encyclopedic work is a bargain.